Penn’s City: American Athens


As the metropolis of a new “empire,” the city became something of an international capital. Besides foreign diplomatic personnel, there were curious tourists who came to see at close range this novel experiment in republican government, which Frederick the Great said could not possibly survive as such, which Turgot hailed as “the hope of the human race,” and which, much later, seemed to H. G. Wells so fresh and unblemished that he likened it to “something coming out of an egg.” French émigrés converged on Philadelphia in successive waves following each change of authority in revolutionary France and its colonies. Some, among them even the most distinguished, came as refugees, and the city was treated to the curious spectacle of French counts teaching fencing to Quaker lads and dancing to Quaker lasses to make a living (Chateaubriand reported that even the Iroquois tribe had a French dancing master, a M. Violet). Moreau de Saint-Méry, sometime de facto president of the Commune, ran a bookstore (he also introduced America to contraceptives as a side line to his trade in literature) which became a rendezvous for the Vicomte de Noailles, Comte Rochambeau, the Duc de La Rochefoucauld-Liancourt, the Duc d’Orléans, and other celebrated compatriots. Talleyrand prepared his international intrigues on the shores of the Schuylkill, and Brillat-Savarin, between fiddling in a theater and teaching French to make ends meet, made notes on the American cuisine, which later appeared in his Physiologie du Goût.

The impact of these elegant Parisians on Philadelphia was no greater than the impact of life in Philadelphia on them. A number of them professed to be shocked by the conspicuous luxury of the city. The Duc de La Rochefoucauld-Liancourt referred to entertainments as stylish and splendid as any he had seen in Europe. Brissot de Warville, noting two ladies who came to a formal dinner with “very naked” bosoms, was scandalized by “this indecency among republicans.” Moreau de Saint-Méry was intrigued by the local custom of giving houses even-numbered addresses on one side of the street and odd on the other, an idea he introduced to Paris when he returned there. Chastellux observed that here, where all ranks were theoretically equal, men followed their natural bent by giving the preference to riches. The Duc d’Orléans, later the “citizen king” Louis Philippe, but whose future was at that time uncertain, made the mistake of applying this principle by asking for the hand of William Bingham’s daughter. With the solid assurance of a Philadelphia aristocrat the young lady’s father is said to have replied, “Should you ever be restored to your hereditary position, you will be too great a match for her; if not, she is too great a match for you.”

Gilbert Stuart came to Philadelphia in 1794 to start the series of innumerable likenesses of George Washington he was to paint and to establish himself immediately as “court painter” and America’s foremost portraitist. He was an inimitable raconteur, an audacious wag, and his Chestnut Street quarters became as much a salon as a studio. In later years he enjoyed badgering his fellow Bostonians by recalling the days he spent in “the Athens of America,” and the Spartans of the North had to suffer his barbs. Massachusetts was at the time still in what Charles Francis Adams, a century later, called its “glacial period,” and for a while yet Philadelphia remained the nation’s cultural capital.

Thomas Jefferson was too much of a radical (as Franklin had been too much of a plebian) to be warmly welcomed by the elite of Philadelphia society. But he found the city beautiful, and rich in intellectual companionship as well. Franklin’s old friend Joseph Priestley, “inventor” of oxygen, had fled to Philadelphia from the wrath of Tory mobs in England, and Jefferson discussed with him plans for a new American university. Another of Franklin’s friends, the incomparable self-taught mathematician and astronomer David Rittenhouse, was the current president of the American Philosophical Society. Of his famous orrery, the planetarium of the day, Jefferson observed, “He has not, indeed, made a world, but he has by imitation approached nearer its Maker than any man who has lived, from the creation to this day.”

William Bartram, who presided over his father’s botanical gardens, within a short walk from Jefferson’s residence, did not create a world either. But with his volume of American travels, published in 1791, he provided a vision of the New World that profoundly impressed his own generation and those to come. His scientific and poetic description of the American scene as he had viewed it in all its colorful variety was a literary masterpiece of early romanticism, and to its pages Coleridge, Southey, Chateaubriand, and Wordsworth turned to inform their speculations about the world in general and America in particular.